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Monday, October 15, 2007

The Takeout Chronicles, Chapter 1: Casa Italia

I love to cook. That goes without saying. If I didn't, you wouldn't be sitting here reading this post, because I would be out doing something else instead of writing a food blog. But, let's face it.....Sometimes, there just aren't enough hours in the day to whip up your own culinary masterpiece. And, sometimes, at the end of a long week, you can barely muster up the energy to kick off your shoes when you walk through the door, much less drag yourself into the kitchen to slice and dice and saute. Going out to dinner isn't an option, because your feet are so swollen that you can't get your shoes back on. So, what's a girl (with a hungry family) to do? Why.....get takeout, of course!

The other day, I found myself in the dubious position of having a full day of appointments, as well as a required family event at my daughter's school at 6:00 that evening. Now, why anyone would schedule an event like that over the dinner hour on a school night is beyond me, but they did. So, I found myself needing a plan for dinner that night. I am fortunate to live in a community with a wide variety of restaurants, delis and cafes. It's not San Francisco or New York, but it fancies itself a cosmopolitan little town.

As I drove along, I surveyed my options. One of the items on my "to do" list that day was to stop by my local Italian specialty store and pick up a few things. They always have some really good, freshly prepared foods available for takeout in their deli case. Also, it was Thursday, and I had heard through the grapevine that on Thursdays they feature an Indian menu. Huh! Indian? No, it isn't a typo. I really said Indian. Now, let me explain.
Casa Italia is the name of this unique little den of gastronomy. For over twenty years, it has been the definitive place in town for imported Italian meats, cheeses, pastas, olive oils, wines....and just about anything else Italian that one could want. (Marcella Hazan shops there, for heaven's sake! I swear! I have seen her there!) One of the most unique things about Casa Italia is that it is owned and run by an Indian couple. Raj and Nita Mathur bought the store from its original, and Italian, owner about five years ago when they relocated to the area from London.

I must admit, back when this change first took place, I was a bit anxious. I worried about the fate of my favorite Italian delicacies. Would I still be able to get my beloved Galbani mascarpone cheese? My imported mortadella with paper thin slices of pistachio nuts embedded inside it? My Cento clam juice? I needn't have worried. The Mathurs have not only preserved the integrity of Casa Italia, but improved it. All of the same great products are still there, along with a plethora of new ones. They have expanded the offerings to include items from other European countries like Spain, Greece and France, as well as India. They stock twenty varieties of Indian spices, chai masala (tea seasoning), chutneys, ghee (clarified butter), pappadams, naan, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) and five types of daal (lentils).

Today's menu featured a lamb curry, with sides of pilau rice with peas, daal with palak (lentils with spinach), and green beans with potatoes. I must say that everything looked delicious. I'm a big fan of Indian food, so my mouth was already watering as I loaded my spicy little bundles into the car. Definitely something to look forward to!

Even though each of the dishes could be heated up in the microwave, I decided to simmer the curry on the stove for a few minutes. I served it all in nice china bowls. I felt the food deserved it. The curry had lots of big succulent chunks of very tender lamb. The sauce was seasoned perfectly, with just the right amount of spice. The rice was also perfectly cooked, laced with saffron, spices and emerald green peas peeking out like little jewels. The green beans with potatoes were fragrant, with some interesting layers of flavors and textures. The lentils were mellow and creamy - a little "down time" for the taste buds. All in all, my whole family thoroughly enjoyed this dining experience!

Casa Italia offers Indian cooking classes, courtesy of Nita, as well as Italian cooking classes conducted by noted Italian chef and cookbook author Giuliano Hazan. For the culinarily challenged, the Mathurs offer an ever changing daily buffet of tasty home cooked entrees and sides. When it is not Thursday, you'll find their display brimming with lasagna, ravioli, or chicken cacciatore. In addition, many items like fresh pastas and sauces are available in the freezer case. It's not cheap eats, but you get what you pay for.
Nita graciously granted permission for me to pass her recipe for Green Beans with Potatoes on to you. I hope you'll try it. You won't be disappointed.

Green Beans with Potatoes

1 pound fresh green beans
2 medium-sized potatoes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Pinch of asafetida powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
2 chopped, peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1 teaspoon dry mango powder
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup water

Wash beans and remove ends; cut into half-inch pieces.

Peel and dice potatoes into small cubes. Wash and leave to drain.

Heat oil in a frying pan. Add mustard seeds; when they start to crackle, add cumin seeds and asafetida. When cumin seeds turn dark brown, add potatoes and stir-fry for a couple of minutes.

Add chopped green beans; stir-fry for 5-8 minutes.

Sprinkle salt, chili powder, turmeric and coriander powder on the vegetables. Mix well, and fry for 5 minutes.

Add dry mango powder or lemon juice, garam masala and tomatoes and stir.

Turn heat down, cover frying pan and stir occasionally. If vegetables start sticking to pan, add a little water.

Cook till potatoes are tender.

Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

--Nita Mathur


Belinda said...

What a feast! Now, that's what I call! Living in a small southern town, I can only dream of having access to such wonderful foods...I have to jump through hoops to find anything slightly exotic, unfortunately. And I too adore spicy Indian delicious...lentils and curries...and those wonderful breads....heavenly. :-) This bean and potato recipe looks good enough for me to make a meal of all on its own!

Susan @ SGCC said...

belinda- Thanks! I live in a pretty small town too, but it is a resort area and there are a lot of international visitors. Even so, I can't get a lot of the stuff I'd like to have.

All of these dishes were great. My personal fave was the beans & potatoes.